So you’re thinking of building a website. Here are some of the import an issues you need to consider and discuss with the team building your website before taking the plunge.
Before starting any website project we must decide what is the purpose of the site. Who is the target audience? Most websites will have some kind of “Call To Action” (CTA) some more obvious such as “buy this” or “contact us” but it can be more subtle such as encouraging attendance at event or presenting a specific point of view. A website usually has several purposes but its most important function will be to reassure people that you are trustworthy, reliable and credible. Once you have established trust you can then begin to influence users responses. The site may have several types of users such as clients/suppliers or members/visitors and it is important to define who are the users and think about how you can meet their needs. Try to think in a user-centric way – i.e.“How can we help” rather than “This is what we have to say”. Create a website that quickly answers the questions or responds to the needs that brought the user to the site in the first place.
The size of your budget will define the scope of the project and will inform many of the other steps below. It is possible to build a website for virtually nothing or spend thousands of pounds but you will generally get what you pay for. The return on investment in a website can sometimes be hard to define exactly, the trust and credibility it may give your organisation will be had to evaluate in monetary terms. However, there are lots of specifics that can be measured such as visitor numbers, sales or enquiries which give an indication of its success. Your website will often be the first point of contact people have with you or your organisation and that first impression is important. It is therefore well worth investing properly in a well designed, attractive website.
Before you build the site it is important to plan the process with all of those contributing. Think about how you will work together, feedback and communicate as well as agreeing on a schedule. Even for small sites, you will need some kind of plan for the different ‘milestones’ in the project such as supply of initial brief, sign-off of the design, supply of content, testing, snagging and go-live date. Even if you do not stick exactly to the schedule it is helpful for everyone involved in the project to have some kind of timetable. Both the client and the designer/developers need deadlines and this will ensure that things don’t drift and the project gets finished.
4. Title and domain name
The name of your site is important, ideally unique, memorable and descriptive of who and what you are. If you already have an organisation or company name then it’s a no-brainer but choosing a domain name is more complicated. Shorter domain names are easier to remember but maybe less descriptive and very few domains of less than 5 letters are available now. A descriptive domain name may also help with your search engine rankings as relevance is important. Eg. www.funkywidgets.co.uk will probably rank well when people search for “widgets”. You also need to decide on the appropriate top-level domain (TLD) .com, .co.uk, .org, etc
5. Platform and hosting
This is a technical decision which will largely be driven by your budget and how you see the future of the site. In almost all cases I would recommend building a website using a Content Management System (CMS) which allows you to log-in and manage the site without the continued involvement of the original site designer. A CMS may cost a little more than a simple hand-coded site but it will give you much more flexibility and ability to add more functionality in future. There are several options for CMS from very cheap basic online web-builder services such as Weebly to ‘premium’ bespoke CMS built by specialist web developers. For many small-medium sized organisations, WordPress will be ideal – a free CMS that requires a designer or developer to set up and configure initially. As your organisation grows so your website requirements may become more sophisticated so it is important to select the right platform to allow some growth otherwise you may be faced with the cost of re-building the site virtually from scratch if you need to switch to a more powerful platform. Hosting may be included with a paid-for CMS but if using WordPress you will need to purchase hosting separately, usually on an annual basis. There are hundreds of web hosting providers many with almost identical offerings. Your web designer can probably advise you on a good host but you need to consider how good is the technical support, is it secure and reliable and can the server cope if there is a sudden increase in traffic to the site.
Content is king, without good content your website is almost pointless. However, it is about the quality and not necessarily about the quantity. It is advisable to devote considerable effort to structuring and writing the content of the site. Decide on your information structure i.e. the pages within the site and how they might logically be broken into sections. Maybe create a tree diagram showing roughly how the pages will sit within the sections. If you have the budget consider employing a professional copywriter otherwise try to involve people with good written English and editing skills from within your organisation. The content does not have to be complete before design and construction of the site begins (indeed the content of a good site is continually evolving) but you will need some idea of size and scope before starting.
Most websites will require imagery which are a foundational part of the design because visual elements have greater impact than text. Although you may use illustrations, diagrams and icons, most websites rely heavily on photography. There are three main sources for photos. Photos taken by you or those within your organisation, photos taken by a professional on your behalf or stock photos purchased from online stock photo libraries. If you have someone within your organisation who is at least a ‘talented amateur’ photographer and can produce good results this will save you a great deal of money as professional photographers will charge at least £1,000 per day. Obviously a professional will usually get far better results and this will be reflected on the website. There are many good stock photo libraries with photos from a few pounds, up to around £100 per image depending on size and quality. The big snag with stock images is that they are generic and are not specific to your organisation. In some instances, it will not matter but particularly when you show pictures of people, your users may sense that the images are not authentic.
Website design is a very large topic but when briefing your designer there are some fundamental things to consider. Do you have an existing corporate identity that should be the foundation for the design? What are the tastes of your target audience and how can the site best engage them? What are the values and the things that define your organisation that the design should reflect? It is also helpful to look at other sites (especially your competitors or those in a similar field) and decide what works well and what is less successful. Design is not just about ‘making it look pretty’ it is far deeper than that, how information is presented and what is the complete experience for the user. Trust your designer to do the design, provide a brief and some guidelines but avoid making arbitrary choices based on subjective personal preferences Eg. “make the site red or make the logo bigger”.
Owning a website requires an ongoing effort beyond the initial design and build. It needs to be kept updated and evolve with you or your organisation and the needs of the users. Building on a CMS allows the owners to log-in and make changes as required. A website really needs a manager who is responsible for this as well as monitoring its performance and responding to enquiries or issues with the site. In small organisations this may be the job of one person but in larger organisations maybe a team. They may also have to act as ‘advocates’ for the site within the organisation to ensure appropriate and timely new content is added, while outdated content is removed or archived. The website manager need to keep up with developments online and may need to involve the designer or developers further to add additional features or make design changes.
10. Analytics and promotion
One the site is live it is important to analyse its performance and try to improve visitor traffic. There are many analytics tools available, Google Analytics being the most widely used free option. Building a good website is not a guarantee of lots of traffic. I always build sites to be as search engine-friendly as possible (from a technical point of view). However, there are SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and web marketing specialists who can help fine-tune the content to improve its listing. This is something of an art as Google continues to evolve and changing their ranking criteria. This is a niche skill and you may want to consider paying an SEO specialist if you want to significantly increase site traffic and responses.